October 26, 2012 / Sexism

New York Senate Debate: The Fifty Shades of Grey Question


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

In the middle of the New York Senate debate between Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican challenger Wendy Long, the moderators announced there would be a lightning round. I liked the idea of a quick section of questions where the candidates give yes or no answers to a variety of questions. It worked well when they were asked if public money should be used to fund PBS, if the candidates had ever taken part in a political protest, and whether or not they write their own tweets.

The lightning round took a strange turn, however, when moderator Liz Benjamin asked something unexpected, “Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?” Both candidates answered “no,” over uncomfortable laughter, and Benjamin added a quick, “me neither, for the record,” before moving on to the next question.

I am sure I was not the only person who was shocked to hear this question. New York has two women running for the Senate, and the candidates have one political debate before the election. How does this question make the cut? After the debate, Benjamin explained to ABC News,

“That book is a cultural phenomenon, got a lot of attention, a lot of eyeballs. So it seemed a pretty apropos question related to current events. Also, with all the attention on women this cycle, and two women candidates and a woman moderator, it worked.”

I disagree strongly with Liz Benjamin. It did not work. There are many cultural phenomenons that have no place in a serious political debate, and this is certainly one of them.

It was a sexist question. The fact that it was asked by a woman moderator does not change that fact.

A male candidate would not have been asked about an erotica book that is often described as “mommy porn” during a serious, senate debate. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a debate during which a male candidate was questioned about his personal erotic reading choices.

When we have female candidates running for office, they should not have to deal with this kind of flagrant sexism. Especially from a woman moderator. This is not the kind of attention women want to see during a political cycle.

It was a distraction during a debate that should have remained focused on the serious issues that voters find important.